Disability Justice Design

I’m presenting on Disability Justice Design this week at The University of Alabama’s 2021 Digitorium conference, where I’ll be talking (via Zoom!) about my work on two courses at Plymouth State University: EN 3420, Rethinking Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and EN 2490, Rethinking Modern British Literature, 1660-1945.

Those courses live here on a WordPress site that allows me to blend a variety of open access pedagogies. This work is steeped in the pedagogical thinking I’ve found at The Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University.

Attached below is my infographic for that presentation. The PDF copy is hyperlinked with sources.

This post, including infographic and PDF access copy, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. If you find a use for this, please email me and let me know!

Student Work at PSU: Finding Hope in 2020

I’ve seen an uptick in “survival-mode” tweets lately. How can we, as educators, as disabled people, as Americans, survive to Nov 3, to winter break, to 2021? And as a white man, how can I leverage my privilege to make survival possible for others, particularly for Queer, Trans, and BIPOC folks?

Today, one of my answers to these questions is “doing and celebrating the work with my students.” I’m linking out to my Twitter and to PSU’s The Ellen Reeder, where I’ve shared recent Essays and Unessays my students from my Rethinking Brit Lit and Global Lit classes have created. The photos, essays, poems, maps, and podcasts all grapple with oppression in some way, pushing back against the social structures that continue to oppose human survival in many ways.

My students’ work is one thing in 2020 that gives me hope for 2021. Many things, actually!

Things that Work

Go home, 2020, you’re an apocalyptic cascade of oppressive systems freshly exposed (again) by a global pandemic, worldwide #BLM protests, and a corresponding surge in public conversations about Racial Justice and Disability Justice.

In other news, I haven’t been blogging in awhile. I have been active on Twitter (@nrhelms), and I’ve been quite busy with the turn to #PandemicPedagogy. Also, after eight long years, I am finally off the academic job market! I have luckily landed at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire as a Assistant Professor of British Literature. I cannot emphasize the luck of it all enough. The current state of employment in higher education is toxic, and collective action is needed now to avoid an apocalypse of higher ed. Or, as my new colleague Matthew Cheney put it recently:

What can we do? How might we reshape our feelings of powerlessness into a sense of possibility? How might some ideals survive?


In this space today I want to quickly count my academic blessings, the bits of work and conversation that are bearing fruit during this trying year.

First, thanks to support from PSU English and from the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at PSU, I’ve launched Intersectionality Talks, a new digital speaker series at PSU.

I’ll also be on the Saul O Sidore Lecture Series committee at PSU, where I especially hope to bring to bear my contacts in Racial and Disability Justice. There’s so much exciting, powerful work being done right now in #ShakeRace and #RaceB4Race, for instance!

I’ve restarted the official PSU English Blog, now called The Ellen Reeder (after the Ellen Reed House on PSU’s campus, home of English faculty offices).

I’m also active in the Disabled Academics Collective, a blog and mutual aid network for everyone in higher ed from undergraduates to faculty & staff to independent scholars. We run a Discord server that’s proving to be a great space for building community and swapping strategies. I’m also on the editorial and social media teams, so if you’re looking to publish something short on disability and higher ed, hit me up.

Finally, I’m working on OER materials for all of my courses at PSU on an ongoing basis. For the Fall of 2020, that means my Rethinking Medieval and Renaissance Literature and Currents in Global Literature courses are all online (including syllabi, assignments, most readings, and all student work). These are explicitly anti-racist and anti-ableist courses, and it’s ongoing work at the level of pedagogy, primary and secondary texts, and student assignments. Collaborative advice welcome, as always!

My goals in all this are straightforward: I want to channel my own rage into collective action; I want to showcase the excellent work of students and scholars in my orbit; and I want to focus on possibility.

So long, and thanks for all the fictions!

Tuscaloosa has been a wonderful home to me. I lived in Tuscaloosa from 2007 to 2019, earning my MA and then my PhD from the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at The University of Alabama and then working as an Instructor for Team English. When my wife got a job at Kennesaw State University in 2017, I started commuting back and forth, finally living in Georgia full time in 2019 and 2020.

It’s been a long, rewarding thirteen years, and consistently the most valuable part of my professional and academic life has been Improbable Fictions.

I’m now in Plymouth, New Hampshire, where I’m starting work Monday as an Assistant Professor of British Literature at Plymouth State University. Improbable Fictions is far from over, but my part in it is now done. Prof. Elizabeth Tavares will be taking over IF after a hiatus to accommodate the ongoing global pandemic.

I’ll be maintaining this blog in perpetuity, but IF will have a new digital platform in the coming year. If you’d like to keep in touch with me, you can find me at nrhelms.org and on Twitter @nrhelms.

So long, and thanks for all the fictions!

Richard’s Mischief Managed

Our reading of Richard III last night was a great success, despite the rainy evening. You can find our Richard program here, which includes historical background and scene summaries courtesy of our director, Angeline Morris. Below, for your viewing pleasure, you can find alternate poster designs from UA art students we thought worthy of honorable mention.

Cartoon of Richard III seeing a stabbed, skeletal version of himself in a mirror.
Poster by A’Neshia Turner
Richard III logo in black font over three crossed swords.
Richard III poster with the image of a wine glass submerged in a sea of wine, upon which a boat is tossed. A reference to Clarence's dream of drowning.
Poster by Anna Sella

IF presents Spring 2020

It’s a busy semester, so Improbable Fictions is concentrating its efforts on two performances this spring.

First off, we’ll be presenting a collection of scenes of and about teaching in early modern drama as part of the 2020 Hudson Strode symposium “The Future of Teaching Shakespeare.” Registration is closed for the symposium (we capped out at seventy attendees!), but our performance is free and open to the public. We’ll be reading these scenes at 7:30 pm on Friday, February 21st, 2020 at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center. Pre-show music begins at 7:15 pm, and a Q&A will follow the approximately 50 minute performance.

Second, IF will present a staged reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, cut and directed by Angeline Morris, at 6:30 pm on Wed, Mar 4th, 2020, also at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center. Pre-show music begins at 6:00 pm. We’re partnering with Theatre Tuscaloosa’s SecondStage: Festival of One Acts, a collection of short plays that begins at 8:00 pm on March 4th and runs through the rest of the week. IF’s reading is free and open to the public. Tickets for the Festival can be purchased here.

Image of a boar eating a crown with the words "Richard III" in the background
Poster by Angel Green

Milton’s Paradise Regained!

On Wednesday, October 16th in 30 ten Hoor Hall, Improbable Fictions presents a staged reading of John Milton’s Paradise Regained.

7:30 pm show start, free and open to the public.

Sponsored by the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, UA Dept. of English.

For more information, please visit improbablefictions.org and strode.english.ua.edu/.

Paradise Regained poster, final, Gustav Dore

Twelfth Night ramblin’

In Trevor Nunn’s 1996 “Twelfth Night,” possibly the best, or at least among the top, film adaptations of this comedy, Toby Stephens plays Orsino as a languid, distant melancholic.


So it took me a number of double-takes to recognize the same actor — now fiery red-headed, apparently his natural coloring — 20 years later, as bloody, devious Capt. Flint from the lush pirate epic “Black Sails,” a “Games of Thrones”-ish (heavily peopled, disturbingly graphic, reliant much like “Vikings” on period detail, lavishing bucks building actual working ships for ramming and wrecking) production, set in the Bahamas but filmed in South Africa.

It ran four years on Starz, 2014-2017, and you can get it on disc. I found the Blu rays worth the extra dollars; it’s a vivid, beautiful mess.

Stephens works heavily in theater, especially for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as did his parents — more on them in a bit — but he’s been in movies such as Sally Potter’s 1992 “Orlando,” from the Virginia Woolf novel, and Tilda Swinton’s breakthrough role; as the villain in the 2002 Bond movie “Die Another Day,” Gustav Graves; in a 2000 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” as Jay Gatz: and on TV series and miniseries such as the 2006 “Jane Eyre,” playing Rochester. He’s currently John Robinson on the new “Lost in Space” series.

Stephens burned through “Black Sails” as Flint, a former naval officer leaving more than one twisted tale in his wake, a sort-of prequel to “Treasure Island” that mixes Robert Louis Stevenson’s characters (such as Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones) with real-world pirates such as Anne Bonny, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, “Calico Jack” Rackham (who created the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger flag) and Israel Hands, one of the few who was both historical figure and “Treasure Island” character.

It’s a bloody fine time, if you can abide graphic realism in your sax and violins.

Wonderfully atmospheric music by Bear McCreary, who also composed/composes for “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Walking Dead,” “Outlander” (if you listen, you can hear the “Outlander” theme, “Skye Boat Song,” playing in a bar in “Black Sails”) and others.

McCreary’s one of the rare proteges taken on by film and theater legend Elmer Bernstein, composer for “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Hud,” “Ghostbusters,” “Animal House”… on and on. Though he was NOT related to Leonard Bernstein; just pals, distinguished from one another in their field as Bernstein West and Bernstein East, because while both composed for theater and film, Elmer leaned more LA while Leonard worked more in NYC. Also pronounced differently: Elmer BERN-steen, and Leonard BERN-stine.

Now back to our regularly scheduled Brit-theatrical deep-dive.

Because he carries his father’s name, I didn’t know until imdbing, the day after the Improbable Fictions’ latest staged reading of “Twelfth Night,” that Toby Stephens is the son of Dame Maggie Smith.

The Dame Maggie Smith.

That Dame Maggie Smith. Violet Crawley, Minerva McGonagall, Miss Jean Brodie, and various goddesses, matriarchs and acid-tongued ladies of stage and screen for the past 60 years.

Stephens’ older brother, Smith’s other son, Chris Larkin, has one of those character-actor faces you’ll likely recognize, having been in “Master and Commander,” “Valkyrie,” “Jane Eyre,” and numerous others. Larkin also co-starred on “Black Sails” (as Captain Berringer), as did Stephens’ wife, Anna-Louise Plowman (as Mrs. Hudson), who you might remember from “Stargate SG-1,” or an Eccleston “Doctor Who” episode, or….The “Black Sails” actor who played Anne Bonny was born Lady Clara Elizabeth Iris Paget, daughter of the Marquess of Anglesey.

Aside from being born near-royalty himself as Maggie Smith’s son, Toby Stephens is also step-son to Patricia Quinn, who was the fourth wife of another RSC giant, Sir Robert Stephens, once thought to be the next Laurence Olivier, though heavy drinking dropped him into the gutter.

But after remarrying and sobering up (at least somewhat), then came a somewhat on-the-nose comeback: Robert Stephens won the ’93 Olivier Award for his Falstaff. The RSC also invited him back to play Lear and Julius Caesar. Stephens was knighted early in ’95; deceased in late ’95.

While still married, Stephens and Smith starred in the 1967 film of “Much Ado About Nothing,” as Benedick and Beatrice, built around a stage adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who you might know from every other Shakespeare film ever, but especially the beloved 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” for which Stephens played The Prince, and Olivier (uncredited) narrated and played Lord Montague. Zeffirelli directed Larkin in a 1996 “Jane Eyre,” though not brother Stephens in the 2006 “Jane Eyre.”

The elder Stephens worked with Kenneth Branagh (who directed and starred in the 1993 “Much Ado” movie opposite HIS then-wife, Emma Thompson) on the 1989 film “Henry V,” as “Auncient” Pistol, while Smith of course worked with Branagh in the Harry Potter movies.

But then everyone’s worked with Branagh, the English Kevin Bacon.

Both Stephens and Smith worked with Olivier in productions of “Othello,” as Iago and Desdemona … though separately.

Oh yeah, and Stephens’ aforementioned fourth wife, Patricia Quinn? You’ll recognize her as Magenta from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Those are her lips at the beginning, mouthing “Science Fiction, Double Feature,” though the voice belongs to her old friend Richard O’Brien, aka Riff Raff, who wrote the musical “RHPS”‘s based on. Quinn’s nephew is the drummer for Snow Patrol.

My new favorite Toby Stephens quote: “Actors don’t listen to each other. You’re so obsessed with what you’re saying or doing that the other person could be talking in Swahili and you wouldn’t know.”

There’s really no point to all this meandering, except that theatrical life can be far more incestuous, twisted and intriguing than just about anyone’s, with the possible exception of perhaps actual royalty.

~Mark Hughes Cobb

IF presents Twelfth Night, Oct 2

And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges!

12 Night poster
Image: A Beach, perhaps the one Viola finds herself shipwrecked upon. Event details below.

On Wednesday, Oct 2, Improbable Fictions will present Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the first staged reading we performed back in 2010. An excellent way to start out our ELEVENTH season! The details: